Jillian Bell whips her life into shape in a fitness-focused dramedy that largely sidesteps the pitfalls of inspiration porn.
It’s not hard to be cynical about a movie like Brittany Runs a Marathon, especially if you don’t look like the kind of person you usually see jogging down the street at all hours of the day — thin, fit, decked out in Lululemon, and deeply satisfied with oneself. From the outside, ‘finspo’ culture can seem more than a little narcissistic and creepy (see: anytime anyone talks to you about CrossFit), and more than one writer has discussed the dark side of inspiration porn as a way to equate thinness with health, even about this very film. For what it’s worth, Brittany does its best to sidestep those concerns, though they inevitably creep into the subtext of the film by definition; what results is a fine, delightful journey that one has to take with more than a few grains of salt.
First, a little background: I’ve been overweight for years, though I wear my weight relatively well. However, off and on (right now I’m on, fortunately) I’ve started running as a way to get into shape. I even participated in my first 5k a few weeks ago, and signed up for my second one ever the same day I write this piece. There’s a sense of liberation and control that happens when you start running regularly; that feeling of getting past the first block gives way to a rush of accomplishment and pride at successfully running one, two, three miles. It’s certainly addictive, and I do feel healthier than I did before I started.
The rough, gradual road to fitness is something that writer/director Paul Downs Colaizzo adroitly captures in Brittany, the tale of a young thirty-something woman (Jillian Bell) living a slyly self-destructive life in New York City. She’s abrasive, performative, and has her shit noticeably less ‘together’ than other women her age. Like in so many of these movies, she’s a small-town girl who goes to the big city with big dreams, but when her dreams are dashed by reality, she falls into a sedentary rut, using humor, food, and booze as coping mechanisms. She’s incredibly guarded even with her friends (one of her favorite defense mechanisms is a British accent she uses to disarm even the most relaxed of situations), and practically celebrates her lack of comparative maturity.
But when one visit to a doctor’s office reveals a spate of health problems (high BMI, cholesterol, etc.), Brittany decides to take after her rich upstairs neighbor Catherine (Michaela Watkins) and start running. It’s these moments that make of some of Brittany‘s most honest depictions of the long, shaky road to fitness: anyone who’s run for anything other than sheer necessity will recognize the daunting prospect of running a single block as a baby step. (I’ve certainly recognized the queasy mixture of pride and fear that comes from getting fully dressed to start running, only to see yourself in the mirror and beat yourself up so bad you just head right back inside.)
Once Brittany gets up and running (heh), that actual part of her journey comes along pretty swimmingly. Before long, she’s joined a running club with Marge and fellow run-struggler Seth (Micah Stock), running 5ks and setting down a goal to run in the famous New York Marathon. Rather, Colaizzo places the focus on Brittany’s myriad interpersonal issues, of which her weight plays a lateral role. Late in the film, Brittany’s brother-in-law Demetrius (Lil Rel Howery) tells her, ” You changing your life was never about your weight. It was about taking responsibility for yourself” — the film’s method of trying to have it both ways.
And yet, Brittany’s weight loss (Bell herself shed forty pounds in the making of this film) is very much a part of the story. While the premise stresses Brittany’s exercise routine, her restrictive diet goes largely uncommented upon; the passage of time is marked by Brittany staring at a scale and writing her weight on the mirror, her self-confidence growing as her waistline shrinks. People start holding the door for her on the subway, men start taking notice, and her old friends start to distance themselves (and, in the case of judgy roommate Gretchen (Alice Lee), openly negging her) now that she’s no longer the “fat sidekick.”
Colaizzo places the focus on Brittany’s myriad interpersonal issues, of which her weight plays a lateral role.
But that’s a double-edged sword, and to a certain extent, Colaizzo wants to have it both ways. Sure, it’s not all about your weight…. but it’s kinda about your weight, right? As much as Brittany wants to separate its message of the joys of fitness with the societal pressures of looking like the kind of person we associate with “health” (read: thin), the world we live in simply won’t let her. (The fact that an audience member audibly gasped in my screening when a downtrodden Brittany dared to eat French fries and a cheeseburger was disquieting, to say the least. Let a girl live!) This is to say nothing of the scenes with the doctor, in which BMI (a long-disputed metric for determining obesity) is used as a cudgel to shame Brittany for her life choices.
At the very least, Brittany at least takes care to showcase the more toxic side of fitspo culture, as Brittany herself starts to drink the Kool-Aid and go too far in validating herself with her fitness journey. Her weight loss begins to plateau short of her goal; an injury sidelines her and threatens to undo her progress; she starts projecting her own internalized fatphobia onto other characters who are happily fat. Brittany goes the extra mile to qualify its main characters’ journey as a case of individual self-actualization, rather than a one-size-fits-all fitness journey, even if it doesn’t totally succeed.
For all of its complicated positioning within the realms of fitness and societal body issues, Brittany nonetheless maintains an infectious warmth and charm. Much of that is due to Bell herself, a gifted comic actress finally given the kind of meaty, substantial role she deserves; as an actress who’s long had to play the funny fat sidekick in countless shows and films, Brittany’s journey to self-respect feels analogous to her own career jump to more serious, emotionally layered material. Scenes with coworker-turned-love interest Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar, subtly charming) let Bell be her most honestly frivolous self, and feel quietly revolutionary in their own way. Colaizzo scripts and films the proceedings with winning energy, even if few scenes cross over into outright belly laughs.
That said, if you’re able to navigate the film’s murky, conflicted presentation of fitness and body positivity, there’s a lot to be charmed by in Brittany, from Bell’s star-making performance to the warm, fuzzy encouragement of the film’s final sequence, in which the titular marathon is run by the titular Brittany. It’s in these moments — the thrill of seeing your loved ones cheering for you, that glorious final step across the rubber ramp of the finish line — that Brittany‘s earnest messages of self-improvement ring most true.
Brittany Runs a Marathon sucks down an energy chew and crosses the finish line into wide release August 30.